A Conversation with… Music Director Michael BeardenTuesday, January 19th, 2016
By Jeff Gunn
Walking past legendary photos of Frank Sinatra and Pink Floyd in the basement hall of Capitol Records, I couldn’t help but feel I was treading through musical history as I made my way towards Studio B to meet with one of Hollywood’s premier in-demand music director’s, Michael Bearden. Busy at work on the keys, he invited me to listen to the track he was laying down in the control room before we headed to the studio floor piano for a conversation.
Michael Bearden has served as keyboardist, pianist, and music director with a plethora of pop stars, including Madonna, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Mary J. Blige, and D’Angelo. He holds the distinction of being Michael Jackson’s last music director at the time of his passing for the This is It tour and appears in the film (which he also scored). Bearden has performed and/or recorded with Neil Young, Elton John, Queen, Sting, Lenny Kravitz, and Santana (he has worked with over 400 artists to date), served as co-music director and conductor for the Primetime Emmy Awards on three occasions, and performed at both of Barack Obama’s inaugurations, the second time as MD with Lady Gaga crafting a “presidential” version of her hit song “Born this Way.” He has appeared on Saturday Night Live, The Voice, subbed in for Paul Shaffer on The David Letterman Show, and was the music director for the The George Lopez Show. Bearden is a United Nations Global Goodwill Ambassador and continues to work with Lady Gaga as music director, most recently on the ArtRave: The ArtPop Ball world tour.
Born on the south side of Chicago, Bearden began playing the piano at age five. He recalls his earliest musical experiences as listening to Aretha Franklin (whom he would perform with years later) and sitting at the piano, which he describes as “the moment the music got me.” By the time he was 10 years old he led the neighborhood band and remembers practicing up to eight hours a day. He would eventually go on to receive a scholarship to attend Howard University in Washington D.C. Following college, he moved to New York City where he would remain for the next 20 years. He played jazz music and landed a gig with jazz flautist Herbie Mann at the age of 20. During this period, he performed with jazz legends Dennis Chambers, Stanley Turrentine, and Freddie Hubbard.
Following a lead from a college friend, Bearden auditioned for Whitney Houston on keys, landed the part and went on the I’m Your Baby Tonight world tour. During this period, Bearden participated in Whitney’s celebrated performance at Super Bowl XXV and her now famous rendition of the American national anthem, and her record-breaking version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” from the film The Body Guard.
After Houston decided to get married and take a little hiatus from the road, Bearden went on to tour with contemporary jazz singer Rachelle Ferrell. He would eventually get a call to perform with Madonna on Saturday Night Live. Following the performance, he was pulled in the dressing room and asked to go on tour, eventually being asked to be her music director – a position he would hold for nine years. Bearden recalls that although this was not his first MD gig, it was his first major pop star music director gig. From Madonna he would get a call to perform with Jennifer Lopez, first as a sideman on keys before eventually becoming music director.
He would eventually get a call by producers to perform on keyboards at the Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Special at Madison Square Gardens in 2001 with Michael Jackson himself. Bearden recalls as a kid how he “wished to be friends with Michael” after connecting with The Jackson 5 songs and particularly with Michael. In 2009, he was shortlisted as a music director for Michael Jackson’s upcoming This is It concert series. He was invited to meet with Kenny Ortega (This is It director) and called back the same night to play for Jackson. Bearden recalls that there was a keyboard that had been set up in the room and he began playing as Michael Jackson entered the room dancing. They had a great vibe and “hit it off” immediately playing songs together over the next 30 minutes. Bearden asked Jackson to give him a set list and Jackson laughed because they were still interviewing others, but Bearden remembers feeling confident that he would get the gig after the incredible session they had just had. He was called back the very same night and selected as Michael Jackson’s music director.
Bearden was asked to perform with Lady Gaga for Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Lady Gaga called Bearden and asked if he would be able to make “Born this Way” sound “presidential.” Bearden went to work orchestrating and recording “Born this Way,” sent over the track and was given the opportunity to rehearse a full orchestra. The first time they met was at the inauguration after which she asked him to be her music director. Bearden eventually accepted and directed and performed on the Art Pop tour.
I asked Michael Bearden some questions about the role of the music director and his experiences leading some of the biggest touring artist bands in the world.
Describe your earliest musical memories.
Bearden: [He plays “Chop Sticks” on piano] I remember listening to Aretha Franklin when my babysitter would play her records while looking after my brothers and I. I began playing piano at age 5 and from that point that’s all I wanted to do. I listened to music on the radio constantly and played piano all of the time.
What makes a great live show?
Bearden: The live musical element. You must do something new with the material live. I always learn the original song and then go from there with the artist. The drums need to move air. The guitar will take solos. I always focus on the “production value” of every song in the show, which I learned from working with Michael Jackson.
Speaking of Michael Jackson, what did you learn from him and what do you take away from working together?
Bearden: My dream as a kid was to be Michael’s friend. He gave me the keys to lead his music which was a dream come true. I learned so many things from Michael. As I mentioned just now, I learned to focus on production value. Don’t give them what they have at home – the recording. People spent their money to come to a show so we must give them live elements like guitar solos, drum solos and new movement. Michael was a master at taking complex ideas and making them simple. That was his genius. Keep it simple. If they can hum it, keep it. Years after his passing kids still love his music – it has a timeless quality. Complexity made simple. He was a great friend of mine whom I miss.
Describe the role of a music director.
Bearden: It’s the music director’s job to direct and present the music so that it makes sense for the artist, the management and the record company. There is a lot of juggling and responsibility. You must be agile and be able to adapt. You must have the skills to adapt to what’s going on and meet the needs of the artist so it suits their vision for the show. The only way to be a great music director, a good leader, is to be a good follower. You must guide all of the talents in the band to get the best result.
What are your current projects and goals?
Bearden: I recently led a Christmas special for Taraji and Terrence of Empire fame for the FOX network. I co-produced Neil Young’s record conducting a 90 piece orchestra and I’d like to do more of that eventually leading a pops orchestra in a major city. I will be participating in the Fender Rhodes festival in Italy next spring. I am also going to be involved in the 2016 Oscars and I’ve been asked to lead two television shows in development. I have a TV show being pitched of which I am a co-executive producer (which is what I’m looking to do more of in 2016). I am also working on production with several up and coming artists and working on the release of my own record.
How can musicians combine music and purpose?
Bearden: As musicians we have the ability to reach millions of people and spread ideas, positive energy and love. I serve as a UN Goodwill Ambassador and I am driven by the “uplift component” of music.
Describe your experience as music director with Lady Gaga…
Bearden: She is incredibly musical. We have a creative connection and I love her as an artist and I grew to love her as a person. I came into the mix in the middle of a lot of changes musically and management wise replacing her previous music director and working with an established band. Serving as music director on the Art Pop tour was a huge responsibility and like all the shows I have directed required that the show gave people an experience they could not get by listening to her album at home. Beyond the stage, a memory that sticks out was accompanying Lady Gaga in Montreal in a vehicle on her way to her show with Tony Bennett to support her as a friend. This was a new head-first adventure for her singing jazz songs with Tony Bennett and if audiences would accept her or not. I knew they would and that’s why I went with her. Another moment was reflecting with her on her performance with Julie Andrews at the Oscars. In my opinion she solidified her legacy that night.
How important is it to become a mentor to younger musicians?
Bearden: Very important so that quality stays high. We also learn from the kids as we produce young artists and this in turn impacts our own understanding of music.
Who were your mentors?
Bearden: Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis, Shelton Becton, Harold Wheeler and Joey Melotti.
What do you do to prep as an MD for an upcoming tour with a new artist?
Bearden: I don’t prep. I learn the songs after I am hired. It is hard to dive in because the artist may reinvent the show. Once you get the job you switch gears and it’s time to develop the show. I listen to the original version of each song before working with the band, developing live versions and presenting it to the artist for feedback.
What advice do you offer upcoming musicians?
Bearden: Do your homework. You must learn where music came from. Look to the masters in order to know your craft. Listen. Be inquisitive. Embrace technology. You can use your phone to access a world of music in a way that was not possible before. Always give your best effort as a performer whether you are playing to 50 or 50000 people.
After all these years and accomplishments what keeps you inspired as a musician?
Bearden: If I wake up this inspires me. Music got a hold of me at a young age and has never let go. Music is service. We can move millions of people in a unique way that no politician can do. Music is love. Music is powerful in the universe.
Leaving the historical Capitol Records Studio B, I was filled with inspiration. I had first met Michael Bearden at the Dalai Lama One World Concert (I performed songs with Emmanuel Jal during the concert) where he served in the band and worked closely with music director Don Was after being recommended for the gig by the late legendary producer Phil Ramone. Listening to Michael Bearden’s story and the insights he shared with me that had been passed on to him by Michael Jackson was such a privilege.
About the Author:
Jeff Gunn is Juno-nominated guitarist, songwriter, and producer for his work on Emmanuel Jal’s The Key album. He is the author of the Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method on Guitar series with Mayfair Music Publications and co-wrote the song “Scars” with Jal and Nelly Furtado for the The Good Lie (Warner Brothers) film soundtrack. He has recorded with Emmanuel Jal, Nelly Furtado, K’naan, Kae Sun, Rayzak, and continues to serve as musical director for Jal, opening for such acts as Nico & Vinz, Peter Gabriel, Mumford & Sons, and Ellie Goulding. Jeff is endorsed by Godin Guitars, D’Addario, Roland, Levy’s Guitar Straps, G7th Capos, Gravity Guitar Picks – Visit www.jeffgunn.ca Twitter: @jeffgunn1